The United States’ bravest pigeon warrior, Cher Ami, of the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ Pigeon Intelligence Service, has been confirmed to have been male, more than a century after Army records labelled the English blue-checked pigeon as a “hen.”
Cher Ami showed the mettle that would make him a global celebrity in October 1918 when almost 600 men from the 77th Division were trapped behind enemy lines during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. After taking days of heavy fire from German forces and once from Allied forces who didn’t realize the Lost Battalion was there, on October 4th commander Major Charles Whittlesey sent his last surviving homing pigeon, none other than Cher Ami, to the American lines with a desperate plea: “We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.”
Cher Ami was hit by a bullet to the chest within seconds of takeoff. He got up and kept flying. By the time he reached home 25 miles away, he was riddled with wounds, blind in one eye and his right leg was hanging by a thread, but the all-important message tube was still there. The American artillery stopped shelling its own men and aimed for the Germans instead, relieving the pressure on the 77th. When the German forces pulled back four days later, 194 men from the Lost Battalion had managed to survive, thanks in large part to the heroism and implacable homing instinct of Cher Ami.
The pigeon needed extensive patching up after flying through hails of bullets and shells — the wound to his chest was so deep it exposed his breastbone — but he made it back alive to the United States, honorably discharged to the care of his trainer Captain John Carney. He received the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in the field from France and Col. Edgar A. Russel, General Pershing’s chief signal officer for the American Expeditionary Force, ordered that Cher Ami “be sent home in charge of an officer, surrounded by all luxury possible.”
And so he was. Cher Ami crossed the Atlantic in style in Carney’s cabin and was welcomed at the dock in New Jersey by throngs of reporters. The story of the brave pigeon who saved the Lost Battalion made headlines around the country and Cher Ami was world-famous. There was some confusion as to the vital statistics, however.
Although the United States Army Signal Corps originally reported the bird as a black check hen, media stories began to blur the bird’s sex. In August, two articles appeared within weeks of each other. In The Ladies’ Home Journal, Rose Wilder Lane fancifully described Cher Ami as a male French pigeon, gliding around Paris rooftops before helping to save the Lost Battalion. In The American Legion Weekly article about the Signal Corps’ homing pigeons, Cher Ami’s condition at the loft is described: “She was in a state of complete exhaustion. From her dangling leg we took the message and dispatched it in great haste to headquarters.”
He got less than two months to enjoy his luxurious retirement. Cher Ami died on June 13th, 1919. The Signal Corps donated his body to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History which had it taxidermied and mounted. Cher Ami’s remains have been on display since June 1921.
In honor of the centennial of Cher Ami’s going on display at the Smithsonian, a tissue sample was taken from the stump of his right leg and DNA extracted from it.
Cher Ami had “Z-specific” DNA sequences, but no “W-specific” sequences. In birds (unlike humans and other mammals), females have two types of sex chromosomes (Z and W) while males only have Z chromosomes. Thus, if Cher Ami has Z but no W sequence we can infer that Cher Ami was a male or cock pigeon. McInerney ran two analyses for Z and two for W sequences, and in replicated analyses Cher Ami only had Z but no W fragments. […]
The results of the test confirmed the Smithsonian’s long-held—but essentially coincidental—claim that Cher Ami is a cock bird. This mystery of the bird’s sex is now a matter of historical record, necessitating an update to the museum’s permanent accession file for Cher Ami and a revision to the bird’s online description.